There may still be great quantities of snow in the hills, but last weekend was my first day of spring all the same. I’d just spent the week at my day job putting out press releases urging people to take crampons and ice axe with them when going into the mountains, and arranged interviews on radio and television for my colleagues and I to give out the same message. With several fatal accidents in the last few weeks alone, everyone was anxious to get the safety message out to the hordes of people expected to make the Easter weekend their first trip of the year into the mountains. So I had ice axe and crampons both but, in the event, never used them. Saturday was a mochy day, with few tops visible for very long, and I decided to go out to Corrour and collect some litter, only to find there was virtually none – just a half bag of cous cous someone felt the mice might like. But the effects of a cold which had been hanging around me for several weeks were making themselves felt, and long before I reached the bothy I knew I’d have struggled to get up any hill. By the time I got back to Bob Scott’s for the night I was knackered and lay down for a sleep.
Later enjoyed a fine evening with John Frae Kent and two young guys from Louisiana who had taken a couple of months to do a walking tour of Britain. Had to admire their go-for-it spirit. They’d taken some transport, but as little as possible and had even walked all the way from Glasgow to Livingstone by road before someone told them there was a canal and footpath which they could have followed all the way to Edinburgh. Their gear wasn’t particularly good, but they knew it, and knew their own limitations, so had waited three days in Braemar for a favourable forecast to walk through the Lairig Ghru to Aviemore, where they would take the bus to Inverness before tackling the Great Glen Way and West Highland Way. Lovely guys. Sunday morning was a cracker. A lot of low level snow had melted during Saturday, and it was going even faster on Sunday despite some overnight frost. Not a cloud in the sky and hardly a breath of wind: it didn’t matter that I didn’t feel much better – I had to do something on a day like this. So I set off for Derry Cairngorm – and was rewarded even before I had crossed the Derry Burn. In all the years I’ve been going up there I’d never heard one, but just past Derry Lodge I not only heard a woodpecker but saw the thing, high up near the top of one of the pines beside the Mountain Rescue Hut.
Going through the Derry Woods and starting up the Carn Crom path, the air was full of birdsong and, as I cleared the trees and crossed the first of the sun-softened snow I could clearly hear the sound of geese honking at each other as they flew so high overhead I could scarcely see them. I’d seen several groups of geese on the Saturday, heading up Glen Derry, Glen Dee and Glen Geusachan, but all the time turning back where the clouds came down over the hills. Today there was no cloud ceiling and their Path was unerringly northward. Higher still, once through the wee band of outcrops of Creag Bad an t-Seabhaig, I saw an eagle effortlessly soaring across the hillside, overflown by another skein of geese a thousand or more feet higher but still clearly audible through the still air. Looking down into Glen Luibeg I could see the tiny figures of my American friends making their heavily laden way towards Corrour, where they intended to stay another night, using the rest of the day to have a look up into the Garbh Choire. I have to say I quite envied them their first ever journey through the Luibeg Woods on such a lovely day, with so many new experiences ahead.
My own energy didn’t match theirs though. The day was warm and my staying power wasn’t up to much at all; I toiled up the final slopes to the summit of Carn Crom. But oh, was it worth it. That suddenly revealed view right into snowy Coire Sputan Dearg, framed between the still white bulks of Ben McDui and Derry Cairngorm, looking over the shoulder of Sron Riach into the bowl of Braeriach’s Coire Bhrochain, round past the great gulf of the Garbh Choire to the Cairn Toul, cradling its summit coire, with only the encircling ridges clear of snow and giving definition to its elegant curves. It’s a breathtaking view at any time but perhaps best on a day like this when the snow glistens brightly against a blue sky and the air is warm around you as you stand and stare.
So I stood and stared, then sat and stared (not forgetting the gentler but lovely views down Glen Lui towards Braemar), and, after eating some lunch, decided with not too much guilt that the top of Derry Cairngorm would manage fine without my feet on it today. Instead I spied out a nice, dry bed of short, dense heather that looked temptingly comfortable and was, when I tested it, nicely out of the slight breeze that had got up while I ate. So, sun in my face, I stretched out and shut my eyes against the brightness, opening them only once over the next hour as I lay and dozed. Utter bliss! After convincing myself I really should get up before my face was entirely burnt, I was reluctant just to steam on down the path I’d come up, so dropped south from the top into Coire Craobh an Oir. There were no special secrets revealed as I traversed the full width of the coire at half height, just the pleasure of walking ground so often seen from below but so seldom trodden – and the pleasure of another sudden view, crossing a slight ridge from a coire within the coire to all at once be up close and personal with the Derry Woods, all cool shade and clearings, and the sounds and smells of spring.
The high tops may still require axe and crampons for a while yet, but spring, most definitely, has sprung.